Film review: Christopher Nolan’s wartime drama Dunkirk is ‘breathtaking’
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Christopher Nolan crafts a stunning mosaic of personal stories.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which tells the story of the evacuation of British forces from the beach at Dunkirk in 1940, is his first venture into historical film making.
But how does it square up in the eyes of a film critic?
Press Association reviewer Damon Smith has his say:
Brevity is the soul of writer-director Christopher Nolan’s harrowing wartime drama.
In his shortest feature since the acclaimed 1998 debut Following, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker crafts a stunning mosaic of personal stories of hard fought triumph and agonising defeat against the sprawling backdrop of the largest evacuation of allied forces during the Second World War.
Nolan adopts a stripped back approach to storytelling that jettisons dialogue for long sequences.
He sets our nerves on edge in the hauntingly beautiful opening scene and steadily tightens the knot of tension in our stomachs until we are physically and emotionally spent.
Pulses race in time with composer Hans Zimmer’s terrific score, which includes a soft percussive beat like a clock ticking down to doomsday, and a new arrangement of Elgar’s melancholic Nimrod from Enigma Variations.
By keeping his script lean, Nolan allows us to remain white-knuckle taut in our seats for the duration.
However, strict rationing of screen time comes at a price.
Characters’ fates intersect on oil-slicked sea, land and air largely without back-stories and when we do learn about these brave men’s pasts, it is predominantly through expository dialogue.
Young British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) escapes a hail of German bullets and races to the beaches of Dunkirk, where over 300,000 exhausted men await rescue.
Tommy huddles alongside terrified recruits Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles), whose fates rest in the hands of Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Captain Winnant (James D’Arcy).
The officers take tough decisions about the order of evacuation under enemy fire.
“One stretcher takes the space of seven standing men,” coolly observes the Commander.
On the other side of the Channel, sailor Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) answers Winston Churchill’s impassioned call for civilian boats to rescue our boys.
He is accompanied by his surviving teenage son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and the lad’s friend, George (Barry Keoghan).
At sea, the family rescues a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) from the hull of an overturned vessel and witnesses a dogfight between German fighter planes and Royal Air Force spitfires piloted by Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden).
Dunkirk glisters in fragments, which slot together to form a compelling and deeply moving narrative that captures this page in recent history from multiple perspectives.
The ensemble cast is excellent, including One Direction dreamboat Styles, who confidently hefts the emotional weight of one nerve-jangling stand-off in a sinking boat.
Aerial sequences are breathtaking, especially in the immersive 70mm format, which projects at selected cinemas and should be sought out wherever possible.
Sound design is also striking, most notably when Zimmer’s score surrenders to the ears-splitting scream of dive-bombing Luftwaffe targeting British soldiers on the sand.
When the Oscar nominees are announced in January next year, you can be sure that Nolan and his gifted technical crew will be leading the charge.
:: Dunkirk is released in UK cinemas on July 21